Have a chocolate brownie ... with a side of mystery

"It was on a dreary night of November that I beheld the accomplishment of my toils."

Yes, it was a dreary night in November. I, like many others, was waiting for the first snowfall of the year. I turned off the oven light, took out the hot pan and thought of these words spoken centuries ago by one Doctor Frankenstein.

Well, technically, they're Mary Shelley's words. The classic horror story was conceived when she and her companions tried to pass the time on a rainy day in the Swiss Alps. Lord Byron suggested an exchange of spooky tales and Shelley spoke of a young ambitious doctor whose pursuit of knowledge led to his own destruction. Dr. Frankenstein is not the evil scientist Hollywood makes him out to be, he is a much more complex character... One could say it is not a question of black or white, but of grey matter (yuk, yuk, yuk). After bringing a jigsaw puzzle of corpses to life and seeing the possible danger of his discovery, Dr. Frankenstein abandons his creation and his experiments.

Like Dr. Frankenstein, I spent the gloomy night experimenting in my kitchen, the closest thing I have to a laboratory. My own monster was close to perfection. Half cookie. Half cake. Double the chocolate for good measure.

Did you just make a yummy sound?

Brownies and a good story can make us forget the potentially harsh winter waiting for us around the bend. Some of the best stories, like the origins of the brownie, are shrouded in mystery. I bet you didn't expect this story to end in ... murder.

According to New England folklore, Mildred Brown Schrumpf, a home cook from Bangor known as "Brownie," is the mother of the tasty treat. One day she forgot to add a leavening agent to her chocolate cake, but not wanting to waste, cut the flat dense cake into squares and served it to her guests.

Another version of the story is that a distracted cook became the creator of the brownie when he added chocolate to a biscuit recipe by mistake. This story, however, hasn't gained much traction.

Fanny Farmer is one of the first authors to include a brownie recipe in her cookbook, but in the first edition of the Boston Cooking-School, "brownie" refers to a molasses cookie (Oh, the horror!). The chocolate treat we know and love today first finds a place in her 1906 edition. The list of ingredients and the recipe are similar to other "Bangor Brownies" published at this time. Could these be the same developed by Schrumpf? It is unlikely, as she would have been 3 at the time. 

Yet, another popular story is that the brownie came to life when Mrs. Bertha Potter Palmer commissioned the snack for ladies attending the World's Columbian Exposition, also known as the Chicago World Fair, in 1893. The chef from her husband's hotel made the squares covered in walnuts and an apricot glaze. His name, however, is forever lost from the records.

Celebrating the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus's arrival to the New World, the Chicago World Fair changed the chocolate landscape of America. As well as the brownie, the first American chocolate bar made its debut. Most famously, one visitor was so transfixed by the equipment of the J.M. Lehmann exhibit of milk chocolate manufacturing, that he bought it. Soon after the Exposition, Milton W. Hershey abandoned his caramel business to pursue the chocolate business.

The streets of Chicago, however, were not paved of chocolate gold. To say the least, it would have clashed with the architects' plans of all-white fair grounds. The white stucco of the Court of Honor, gaining a reputation as the "White city", made the buildings seem illuminated. They remained so all through the night due to streetlights.

The White City

Despite this, another monster was lurking in the shadows of the White City, luring visitors a short walk away to the World's Fair Hotel. H. H. Holmes, or as he is best known due to Erik Larson's historical novel, the "Devil in the White City," is considered the first American serial killer.

Unlike Frankenstein's creation who was rejected by mankind for looking like a monster, Holmes looked like everyone else: curious of the ground breaking technological inventions and excited by the celebration of the pursuit of knowledge. He posed as a doctor and pharmacy owner, gaining visitors' trust with his charm. At his trial, he confessed to 27 murders, but it is believed that the final count could be around 200. We will never know how many of these horrifying murders took place just steps away from the gatherings in the White City. As Mary Shelley's Captain Walton writes to his sister before finding Dr. Frankenstein on his quest to the North Pole, "What could not be expected in the country of eternal light?"

Some things, however, are better left in the dark.

As for the mysterious brownies in the story, they took the world by storm. The one in front of me is calling my name. Maybe I am more like Dr. Frankenstein than I think - my creation will lead me to my own downfall.

For more information, see

Erik Larson, The Devil in the White City: Murder, Magic, and Madness at the Fair that Changed America. (2004)

Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, Frankenstein, or the Modern Prometheus. (1818)

Nicholas Westbrook, "Chocolate at the World's Fairs, 1851-1964",in Louis E. Grivetti, Howard-Yana Shapiro (eds.) Chocolate: History, Culture, and Heritage. (2011)


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